Fatal Standoff Renews Debate on How Police Handle People in Distress

A protest march the week after Najee Seabrooks was shot and killed by police officers, in Paterson, N.J., March 10, 2023. (Bryan Anselm/The New York Times)
A protest march the week after Najee Seabrooks was shot and killed by police officers, in Paterson, N.J., March 10, 2023. (Bryan Anselm/The New York Times)

For hours, the Paterson police pleaded with Najee Seabrooks to come out of a locked bathroom where he was threatening to kill himself.

“Everybody’s walking out of here, including you,” one of the officers told him, according to video from police body cameras released by the New Jersey attorney general’s office this week.

“I’m dying in this bathroom,” said Seabrooks, a 31-year-old mentor at an anti-violence organization in Paterson, a city of 158,000 people in northern New Jersey.

Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times

“That’s not happening, Najee,” the officer replied. “Not on my watch. Come on. You’re going to live a long time. This ain’t how it ends for you.”

But at 12:51 p.m. on March 3, about five hours after someone called 911 to report a man in distress, Seabrooks was declared dead. He had been shot by two officers, who fired at him after Seabrooks came out of the bathroom and “lunged toward the officers with a knife in his hand,” according to a statement by the attorney general’s office, which is investigating the shooting.

The attorney general’s office identified the two officers who fired their weapons as Anzore Tsay and Jose Hernandez, both of whom are members of the department’s emergency response team.

The case has roiled the city, where Seabrooks’ colleagues and family have demanded to know why mental health specialists were not allowed into the apartment so they could help. Protesters have marched to decry the shooting and to call for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate. One week after Seabrooks was shot, several dozen people gathered at a restaurant owned by one of the officers involved in the shooting and banged and kicked at the security gate.

The footage released by the attorney general, taken from at least four hours of video from cameras worn by the officers on scene, shows the police repeatedly telling Seabrooks, who can be seen at points holding a bloody knife, to come out and talk to his mother. They asked him how they could help, urged him to stop cutting himself and then pleaded with him to come out so they could take him to a hospital. Then, at 12:35 p.m., Seabrooks leaped out of the bathroom.

“It was a dangerous situation in there,” said André Sayegh, the mayor of Paterson, whose administration had repeatedly urged the state attorney general’s office to release footage from police body cameras.

The officers “were there to render aid and as you’ll see in the videos, they were trying as much as possible to avoid a tragic outcome,” he said.

The police did not respond to messages for comment. The attorney general’s office said it would not comment beyond its statement, citing the continuing investigation.

Members of the Paterson Healing Collective, the anti-violence organization where Seabrooks had worked for two years as an interventionist, said the videos show precisely why the police should not be the primary responders when a person is in the throes of a mental health crisis.

The officers had their weapons drawn as they spoke with Seabrooks, who told officers he had three knives and “a gun, fully loaded.”

Members of the Paterson Healing Collective said that they were barred by the police from intervening as they waited for hours in the lobby of the multistory apartment building where Seabrooks was shot.

Seabrooks had repeatedly texted members of the collective that morning asking them where they were, said Liza Chowdhury, project director of the Paterson Healing Collective.

“‘I need to hear your voices. I need to see your faces,’” she said he texted. Even after Seabrooks’ colleagues showed the messages to officers at the scene, “the police would not allow us in,” Chowdhury said. When she asked the city’s public safety director, Jerry Speziale, to give her staff access to the apartment, she said he responded that the department had sent a unit trained to de-escalate these types of situations.

Speziale did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Chowdhury said that her staff is trained to talk for hours to people going through “the worst situations in their lives.”

“Any mental health professional knows patience is key,” she said. “Patience, empathy, understanding.”

Chowdhury, who was a probation officer for 10 years, said showing a gun to someone going through a mental health crisis only increases paranoia and fear.

Yannick Wood, director of criminal justice reform at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said “there’s something wrong with the system when someone calls for a mental health issue and they end up getting approached by men with guns.”

When officers arrived, Seabrooks was already in the bathroom. He had arrived at his brother’s apartment at about 2 a.m., grabbed “some knives” and locked himself in, his relatives told the police.

The family said that “he may have been experiencing a bad reaction to something he had smoked,” according to the attorney general, “and that his actions were completely out of character.”

Uniformed officers tried to cajole him out, then had his mother speak to him from outside the door.

“Please, Najee,” she said, crying. “I love you, Najee. Open the door. Najee, come on, please open the door for me.”

He would not come out.

His mother told the police that Seabrooks did not have a history of mental illness, but that the job, which entails helping to steer young people from violence, was becoming stressful, according to the video.

“I think that’s getting to him,” she said. “He’s seen a lot of his friends get killed.”

When an officer told her that Seabrooks told the police he had a gun, she seemed confused.

“Where did he get a gun from?” she asked.

A specialized unit soon arrived, bearing shields, high-powered firearms and wearing helmets.

At 11:46 a.m., Seabrooks, who was shirtless, peeked out of the door and saw the officers, who were pointing their guns in his direction. He let out a yell.

“That’s how you coming?” he asked, then cursed.

“Drop the knife, man,” an officer demanded.

“Less than lethal,” a supervisor ordered. “Less than lethal.”

They told him to stop cutting himself and to come out. The camera angles make it hard to see Seabrooks in the bathroom, but he can be heard screaming.

The officers continued to plead with him to drop the knives.

“Just put them down,” one of the officers said. They offered to let him talk to his mother again.

“I’m sure she don’t want to see you like this,” one officer said, seconds before Seabrook appeared to leap out of the door.

“Drop it!” the officer yelled, just before the shots were fired.

Chowdhury said Seabrooks’ family is planning to hold his funeral on Saturday. He had a daughter, who is about 4, she said.

Chowdury said that while her staff members were at the scene, she was texting Seabrooks and talking to the police on the phone. Then, members of her staff called to say they had heard shots.

“I just said no. I didn’t believe it,” she said. “I never thought that the police were going to kill him.”

c.2023 The New York Times Company